A Friendly White House Reminder: Climate Change Is Bad for Your Health

Mosquito recon is one program the government is encouraging in its effort to highlight global warming's threats to public health.

As part of a campaign to raise awareness of the health risks of climate change, White House officials this week highlighted a Microsoft project to track mosquitoes and warn against the spread of insect-borne diseases using drones. Credit: Don McCullough/Flickr

Look out, skeeters—the drones are coming.

As part of a campaign to raise awareness of the health risks of climate change, White House officials this week highlighted a Microsoft project to robotically stalk mosquitoes and warn against the spread of insect-borne diseases.

"In order to improve disease surveillance systems' ability to detect disease emergence prior to an outbreak, Microsoft Research is prototyping an experimental autonomous system to help detect pathogens in the environment before they infect people," a White House fact sheet said. "This effort envisions drone-deployed devices that can collect mosquitoes autonomously and conduct gene-sequencing and pathogen detection computationally."

Diseases spread by insects are just one of the many risks associated with a warming planet, and the intriguing Microsoft project is just one of dozens of ventures the White House is encouraging.

Many involve data that helps track and predict global warming's role in sickening and killing people.

But raising awareness of health and climate is an important element of the White House's regulatory agenda for other reasons. As it pledges to cut emissions of greenhouse gases in the coming decade to 28 percent below 2005's level, the administration wants to show that the long-term benefits—especially to public health—are worth the immediate costs.

"It comes in the context of our larger push with our climate action plan to take a set of aggressive actions to try and actually reduce carbon pollution and get ahead of this problem," Brian Deese, a senior advisor at the White House, told reporters. As an example, he cited proposed regulations to cut emissions from existing electric power plants.

"That, for us, is animated importantly by trying to address some of these health impacts, but if you look at some of the steps that we are taking, like the Clean Power Plan, for example, it would have incredibly powerful impacts on improving public health."

Without this kind of regulation, the administration argues, the nation's future health care bill will ultimately include a climate penalty.

To bolster that case, the White House also released on Tuesday a new draft Climate and Health Assessment report. It is seeking public comment and peer review on the draft, a step meant to make its scientific case more powerful in the court challenges and congressional debates that lie ahead.

Issued by the United States Global Change Research Program, the report updates and expands upon a comprehensive national climate assessment issued last year, this time focusing on the latest findings about health. Its more than 400 pages include chapters on high temperatures, but also on related air quality problems like smog; on those pesky mosquitos and other disease carriers; on illnesses from tainted water; on food and nutrition; on injuries from storms, flood and other extreme weather events; on mental health issues and on populations like children and the elderly who may be especially vulnerable.

The administration has long seen the health connection as a powerful argument for  clamping down on climate change. Almost anything it does to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, has ancillary health benefits.

Asthma has been the poster child for this approach.

Last year, when Gina McCarthy of the Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposal to reduce CO2 emissions from electric power plants, her very first words were about meeting a boy named Parker with severe asthma.

There are two ways that controlling carbon pollution helps asthma sufferers.

In the short term, shifting away from dirty fuels like coal not only cuts carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. As a welcome side effect, it also cuts the ozone pollution that worsens asthma.

In the long term, cutting carbon dioxide helps reduce global warming—which means fewer very hot days, when ozone-laden smog tends to be at its worst.

The new health assessment issued on Monday cites recent research showing that a warming climate's rising ozone will lead to "premature deaths, hospital visits, lost school days, and acute respiratory symptoms."

The study's models suggest that by 2030, as average daily maximum temperatures rise between 1 degree and 4 degrees Celsius, the accompanying rise in ozone levels will cause tens of thousands of ozone-related illnesses and deaths each year, and would cost between "hundreds of millions and tens of billions of U.S. dollars."

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